Review: Ordinary Girls by Blair Thornburgh

Ordinary Girls by Blair Thornburgh

Ordinary Girls by Blair Thornburgh (9780062447814)

Plum could not be more different than her excitable sister, Ginny. Ginny has a group of friends at their private school, while Plum doesn’t have any at all. She’d much prefer to do advance reading for her classes than engage with others her age. Ginny is about to graduate from high school and longs to get accepted into her university of choice, but it’s not that simple. First, she has to be accepted and then she needs enough financial aid to attend. While they may live in a large home, it’s filled with clutter and day-to-day life rather than being a show piece. Feeling more and more distant from her ever-more-agitated sister, Plum finds herself in a position to help, but only because of a secret romance. Now Plum has her own life, but it may take her away from her family right when they need her.

This is a contemporary tale with a classic heart. Riffing on Sense and Sensibility, this  novel for teens takes one rather old-fashioned young lady and her sister who is her opposite and flings at them the trials of modern life. There are the costs of living when their mother loses her royalty payments, the grueling college application and financial aid process, bullying, and of course, kissing too. It’s a book that offers two great female characters. Plum is introverted, wildly funny and wise. Ginny is anxiety-ridden, loud, dramatic and loving. The two together make an ideal look at sisterhood.

Thornburgh writes with a specific style here. It even more tightly ties the story to classic literature and also reveals Plum’s thoughts and her own way of thinking. The story never drags, instead it is filled with drama and disasters large and small. The writing is a delightful mix of classic and modern with plenty of humor too.

A deep look at sisterhood that is funny and rich. Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by HarperTeen.

Review: Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga (9780062747808)

Jude lives in Syria with her beloved older brother and her parents. As her older brother gets involved in the political battles around them, her parents decide that it is too dangerous for Jude and her pregnant mother to stay in Syria. So Jude and her mother move to Cincinnati to live with Jude’s uncle. America is very different than Syria, much louder and faster, and filled with a language that Jude barely understands. As Jude gets acclimated to living in the United States, she steadily makes new friends along the way. Her love of movies and desire to perform lead her to audition for the school musical. But when the attacks of 9-11 occur, the country that Jude has grown comfortable in changes to be more hostile to Muslims. Jude needs to rediscover what she loves about both Syria and the United States, her two homes.

This novel is written in verse, making for a very readable work. Told in Jude’s voice, the poetry allows readers to see how she feels about leaving Syria, how lost she feels when she comes to Cincinnati, and how she starts to find her way. The importance of English Language Learner classes are emphasized, both in learning the language but also in finding a group of friends. Jude also finds friends in other ways, connecting over shared cultures and shared interests.

Jude’s voice is vital to find in a middle grade novel. My favorite chapters are where Jude gets angry and voices her pain at the injustice of being labeled in a certain way, feared because of her religion, judged because of her headscarf. Those moments are powerful and raw, ringing with truth on the page.

Beautifully written with an amazing Syrian heroine at its center, this book is a great read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Balzer + Bray. 

Review: Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn

Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn

Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn (9781681197432)

Cat and Chicken live in San Francisco with their mother who works several jobs, but one is to be a children’s book author with books that feature Cat and Chicken as a caterpillar and chicken. When they head across the country for a summer job, their plans suddenly fall through. Now Cat and Chicken must stay with grandparents they have never met before while their mother works in Atlanta. Their grandparents live on Gingerbread Island, a place their mother hasn’t returned to since before Cat was born. Lily, their grandmother, is warm and maternal, quickly adapting to Chicken’s special needs. Macon, their grandfather, is more distant and gruff, working in his workshop and going on long walks alone. As Cat and Chicken get to know them, they find a wonderful pair of grandparents who love them immensely, so Cat tries to figure out how to bring her family back together again. She hopes that entering a fishing contest, a sport her mother used to love, with give them an opportunity to bond. But things don’t quite work out as planned, just like in her mother’s books.

McDunn has written the ideal summer read. It has a lightness to it that is pure summer sunshine, one that invites reading with sand between your toes or a flashlight in a tent. At the same time, the characters and story wrestle with larger issues of what family means, how a family can form a rift, and how the pressure of having a little brother who is neurodiverse can be challenging for an older sibling. I deeply appreciated Chicken as a character. He is not labeled in any way in the story but shown as having specific challenges that make looking after him different from other children.

Cat herself is a very strong young woman who holds her family together. Her grandmother recognizes that and helps Cat understand better what she is doing. As her grandparents step in to allow Cat to have a summer as a child, she fights them, trying to retain her role as Chicken’s caretaker. That process of letting go is beautifully shown, given time and patience. Throughout the book, nothing is simple, not even Cat’s enemy on the island, whose own story provides reasons for his actions.

Richly drawn and yet still summer light, this novel is a delight. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.

Review: Night Job by Karen Hesse

Night Job by Karen Hesse

Night Job by Karen Hesse, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (9780763662387)

Released on September 11, 2018.

On Friday nights, a little boy goes with his father to work. They leave after dark on his father’s motorcycle, head across the bridge, and enter the closed school. His father has a big ring of keys to open the door. They clean the gym first, while the little boy plays basketball. They bring a radio with them from room to room, listening to baseball games. At ten at night, they eat the lunch they brought with them. While his father cleans the library, the boy falls asleep reading on the couch. His father wakes him at four in the morning to head back home, across the bridge. The two fall asleep together curled in the big recliner.

Newbery Medal winner Hesse captures the wonder of going to work with a parent and brings in the beauty of being out at night as well. Along the way, the work of a parent who has a night job is honored. As a child of a teacher, I enjoyed the empty hallways of a school closed for the weekend or summer. It’s a beautiful thing to have those areas be silent and just for you. That feeling is shown here clearly, as the boy makes the spaces his own.

The connection between father and son is a focus of the story and the illustrations. The pictures by Karas are done in his signature style and use darkness and light cleverly. The father and son are shown as a pair throughout the book, highlighting their special time together whether in the bright gym or on the dark road.

A quiet book about jobs, connections and families. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy provided by Candlewick Press.

 

Review: Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram (9780525552963)

Darius can’t seem to fit in anywhere. He is teased at school for being fat and Muslim. He’s never really had a friend. His father doesn’t approve of anything he does and often seems ashamed that Darius is his son. Darius is nothing like his younger sister who is adorable, outgoing and speaks flawless Farsi. So when Darius and his family take their first-ever trip to Iran to see his ailing grandfather, Darius wonders if anything will be different there. There he finally gets to meet his grandparents. His grandfather is intimidating, still watering his trees from up on his roof and driving at breakneck speeds. At the same time, he also gets lost sometimes and has outbursts of temper. Darius’ grandmother is pure love and kindness, creating meals and sharing tea. So when Darius meets Sohrab, a boy from the neighborhood, they cautiously make friends. There are bumps along the way, penis jokes taken too far, but soon they are fast friends who share a special spot overlooking Yazd. When tragedy strikes Sohrab’s family though, Darius is unsure how to help and ends up driving a wedge in their friendship that may not be able to be mended.

This book entirely stole my heart. I enjoyed Darius himself from the very beginning as he struggled with American teenage culture. However, the book truly begins when they get to Iran. It is there that Darius blossoms, but slowly and naturally. The entire book clicks together, beautifully depicting Yazd, carefully leading readers through new experiences and new foods, and celebrating the culture of Iran.

In many ways this book is a love letter to the city of Yazd and Iran itself, but it is also deeply about Darius and his growth as he finds a best friend and a place he fits. There are profound statements here about depression, stress to fit in and the sudden magic of discovering what true friendship is. There is also great humor, struggles to be understood and to understand, cultural issues and family tensions and joy. It’s complicated, just like every good novel should be.

Come fall in love with Darius and Iran at the same time in this amazing debut novel. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Dial Books.

Review: The Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair by Amy Makechnie

The Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair by Amy Makechnie

The Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair by Amy Makechnie (9781534414464)

When Gwyn and her family move in with her Nana in rural Iowa, it’s a big change from living in New York City. It’s all to help her mother, Vienna, develop new memories. Vienna remembers nothing since she was thirteen, including Gwyn and her little sister Bitty. Gwyn and Bitty quickly befriend two boys from the neighborhood, Micah and Jimmy. They live with Micah’s mother, Gaysie Cutter, a woman who tries to bury Gwyn alive the first time they meet. So when a man goes missing, Gwyn knows that Gaysie had to have something to do with it. Now she just has to prove it and not damage her friendship with Jimmy and Micah along the way. But there are many secrets in their small town, ones that threaten to topple Gwyn’s theory of Gaysie’s guilt.

This is Makechnie’s first novel, and it is very impressive. Gwyn is a stellar character, who doesn’t shy away from being entirely herself and different from everyone else. She is a girl who will learn how to lift fingerprints, share her theories directly with the police, stand up to a group of bullies, and dare to speak up around Gaysie Cutter. All of the characters are well drawn and interesting, including Gwyn’s mother who is struggling with the limits of her memory, her father who could be a suspect too, and the two boys who are as different as possible but also brothers through and through.

This story has many layers, making it a very rich read for middle graders. One piece that really works well is the layering of the previous generation growing up in the same small Iowa town. As Gwyn learns of the connection between her mother, father and Gaysie during their childhood, she also finds out about a terrible accident that changed them all forever. That element is then echoed through to the present day with the new generation of children getting into trouble themselves.

A great read, a grand mystery, and a strong protagonist. Appropriate for ages 9-12. (Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum.)

American Panda by Gloria Chao

American Panda by Gloria Chao

American Panda by Gloria Chao (9781481499101)

Mei is a freshman at MIT. Her Taiwanese-American parents have decided that she will become a doctor, though Mei tends to be a bit freaked out by germs. They also want her only to marry a Taiwanese boy selected by them. As Mei chafes under their expectations and excessive attention, she starts to date a Japanese-American boy at MIT. But her brother was kicked out of the family for dating a girl her parents didn’t approve of, so she has to keep him secret. She is also keeping her love for dancing and her dream of owning a dance studio from her parents. And when she starts to see her brother again, she also can’t tell them that. As Mei’s lies and secrets grow larger, it becomes inevitable that they will topple over and the truth will come out. But what does that mean for her relationship with her parents and extended family, going to MIT and her own dreams?

Chao has created a book that she needed as a teenager, one that reflects the deep-seated expectations of a family. At times, the reactions and actions of the family are horrifying, including the put downs of Mei, the disowning of children, and the expectation that the parents’ opinions are all that matter in every scenario. And still, readers will see the love shine through since Chao allows spaces to form that give Mei and her family hope for reconciliation in the future.

The book is masterfully written allowing readers to see culture as both a foundation but also as a constricting world at times. She imbues the entire novel with humor, since Mei is funny and smart, seeing the world through her own unique lens. The messages from Mei’s mother pop up between chapters, offering their own moments of laughter. The steady growth of connection between Mei and her mother is one of the most vital parts of the book, as Mei’s discovery of her own voice allows her mother to step forward too.

A book that belongs in all public libraries, this novel will speak universally to all teenagers looking to make their own paths. Appropriate for ages 13-16.

(Reviewed from copy provided by Simon Pulse.)

 

3 New Picture Books Full of Compassion

Be Kind by Pat Zietlow Miller

Be Kind by Pat Zietlow Miller, illustrated by Jen Hill (9781626723214)

When Tanisha spilled grape juice on her dress, the others in class laughed at her until she ran out of the room. But one child doesn’t laugh and tries to make her feel better by saying that they love the color purple too. That child narrates the book and wonders what the kind thing or better thing to do would have been. Maybe kindness is giving? Or could it be helping? Is it paying attention? Using people’s names? It can be hard to be kind, to stand up to others, to be the lone voice. And sometimes, kindness is sitting near someone quietly and then showing without words that you understand. Miller explore kindness in a way that children will understand and offers them questions rather than simple solutions so they can explore the idea themselves. The art in the picture book is nicely done, incorporating children of different races in the classroom. The ambiguous gender of the main character is also welcome. This is a book that invites conversation about kindness and compassion. Appropriate for ages 5-7. (Reviewed from copy provided by Roaring Brook Press.)

Chinese Emperor_s New Clothes by Ying Chang Compestine

Chinese Emperor’s New Clothes by Ying Chang Compestine, illustrated by David Roberts (9781419725425)

This picture book is a twist on the traditional tale, this time with the emperor being part of the trick rather than solely the tailors. When young emperor Ming Da discovers that his advisors are stealing from him, he comes up with a clever way to expose their misdeeds. Enlisting the help of his tailors, Ming Da dresses in burlap sacks, telling his advisors that they only look like sacks to those who are dishonest, otherwise they look like the finest silks. The three advisors soon have their own sacks to wear in the entourage, since they can’t admit their dishonesty. With a focus on helping the poor and being honest, this picture book is an engaging twist on the original. The illustrations pay homage to the Chinese setting by incorporating more formal framing at times. Look for small creatures watching the action along with the reader and the looks of delight as the tailors trap the advisors in their lies. A great book to share aloud, with a young hero who puts others before himself. (Reviewed from library copy.)

The Rabbit and the Shadow by Melanie Rutten

 The Rabbit and the Shadow by Melanie Rutten (9780802854858)

This French import is a strange and haunting picture book. When Stag finds Rabbit left on his doorstep, he takes Rabbit in and raises him. They laugh together and feel each other’s pain. They race home and Stag always lets Rabbit win. Rabbit worries that Stag won’t always be there and Stag knows that Rabbit with grow up and eventually leave. Then one day, that happens. Rabbit is alone in the woods and meets two others, a Cat who loves soccer and a Warrior who is very angry. The three of them adventure together and form a family of sorts, eventually they all become more honest about who they are. Still, there is a shadow lingering nearby, one that has been in Rabbit’s story since the beginning. Can that Shadow help bring Stag and Rabbit together again?

Told with such heart and beauty, this picture book is a very different read. It is about family and adoption, but also reaches beyond that to the struggle of growing up and being independent, yet the homesickness and longing for people you love. It’s a deep picture book, that reaches into dark corners and reveals that shadows can actually protect and guard. It’s a book that shows that the universe can revolve around love and still allow exploration, new friends and wonder. The illustrations are playful at times, dark with worry at others, and exploding with joy too. Emotions are not only depicted by the characters but embraced by the entire color palette too.

One of those wonderful picture book imports that will blow your mind. Appropriate for ages 5-7. (Reviewed from copy provided by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.)

3 Picture Books Honoring Family

The Best Tailor in Pinbaue by Eymard Toledo

The Best Tailor in Pinbaue by Eymard Toledo (9781609808044)

Edinho’s uncle is the best tailor in the small town of Pinbaue in Brazil. He used to make bright-colored and beautiful clothes and costumes for the villagers, but now he just makes uniforms for the factory where almost everyone in town works. Edinho’s father doesn’t work for the factory either, he still keeps fishing though the pollution from the factory has impacted the quality and quantity of the fish. Then the factory decides to import their uniforms and suddenly Uncle Flores doesn’t have any work to do. When Edinho discovers bright fabric in storage, he has an idea that just might help the entire village. The text of this picture book is sprinkled with Portuguese words. The writing is clear and very readable, offering a fictional village that speaks to the plight of real small villages across Brazil and other countries.The illustrations are fascinating collages worth poring over. Fine details, textured papers and lots of patterns create a rich world. A compelling look at the impact of large factories on villages and how children can make a difference. Appropriate for ages 5-8. (Reviewed from library copy.)

Grandma_s Purse by Vanessa Brantley- Newton

Grandma’s Purse by Vanessa Brantley- Newton (9781524714314)

An African-American little girl’s grandma Mimi is coming to visit and she lets the little girl look at what she carries in her purse! There is a mirror for putting on lipstick, perfume, earrings, hairpins, candy, and much more. Larger things include her phone, a scarf, glasses, and a coin purse filled with coins and memories. The two of them talk about each thing and then the little girl gets to try some of it out, including the lipstick, hairpins, scarf and glasses. Then they look at pictures from the grandmother’s purse that show Grandma Mimi as a little girl. There is one last thing way at the bottom of the purse, and it’s just for Mimi’s granddaughter this time! Told with an eye to explaining what the grandmother is carrying and why, this exploration of a purse is pure joy. The connection between the girl and grandmother is tangible on the page and celebrated in each illustration. I particularly love the messy lipstick on the little girl and her joy at each discovery. A winning look at a special relationship. Appropriate for ages 3-5. (Reviewed from copy received from Alfred A. Knopf.)

Grandma_s Tiny House A Counting Story by JaNay Brown-Wood

Grandma’s Tiny House: A Counting Story by JaNay Brown-Wood, illustrated by Priscilla Burris

Grandma is getting ready for a party. With two turkeys already baked, the neighbors start to show up. Three of them bring four dishes to pass. Five family members come with six dozen biscuits and jam. The counting continues through the story with lemonade, cheesecakes, sweet-potato pies, and honeydew melons being brought by more and more people. When the party starts, the house is too full for people to move. One little granddaughter has the solution and the party moves outside to the big backyard. While this is clearly a counting book, the story of a warm and large family is really at its heart. The illustrations by Burris are welcoming and warm. Readers will want their own outside party filled with great food, friends and family. Expect lots of watering mouths as you share this book. Appropriate for ages 2-4. (Reviewed from library copy.)